How to Prevent Dog Bites: Make Sure Your Child Isn't a Statistic
Tommy is a two-year-old child who lives with Marcy, a three-year old Basset Hound. Marcy is about the sweetest dog you've ever met and really loves Tommy. Always excited to see Tommy, Marcy is fantastically tolerant - she will let Tommy climb all over her, lie on her like a pillow, grab onto her ears, chase her around the house, and take a toy out of her mouth. When Tommy was first learning to walk, he would occasionally stumble and fall on Marcy when she was resting, but Marcy never lifted a lip in warning.
While it's wonderful that Marcy is so comfortable around Tommy and that Tommy loves his dog, it's also concerning. Both Tommy and his parents are creating potentially dangerous habits and assumptions about kids, dogs, and how they should interact. Tommy's parents may be lulled into the false assumption that Marcy willl be comfortable with all toddlers crawling on her, taking her toys away, touching her when she's eating, grabbing her tail or ears, and stumbling on her as she rests. This may not be the case - I mentioned in a post last year that dogs understand intimacy, and it is highly probable that Marcy may well be tolerant of these behaviors with a much-loved family member but would react quite differently if Sara, Tommy's three-year-old cousin, were to do the same thing. Just because I can kiss my dogs on the face doesn't mean you should!
Moreover, Tommy is at an age where he is learning what the rules and appropriate standards for interacting with dogs are. Toddlers, like dogs, tend not to be very good at discriminating - Tommy will likely assume that it is acceptable to interact with all dogs the same way he interacts with Marcy, which places Tommy in danger of becoming a dog bite victim.
I will tell you now, Marcy is an exceptional dog. Most dogs would absolutely not tolerate this type of interaction well, and will generally start to display some signs of low level aggression, which you can learn more about from Doggone Safe Some dogs, particularly those not well-socialized with children, will skip the low-level warning and launch directly into a bite. Toddlers are the population most likely to suffer from a dog bite, and generally, when a toddler is bitten, the injury is to the face (because children's faces are often at the same height as dog faces, and because many of the incidents revolve around hugging, when the toddler's face is very close to the dog's face).
Children like Tommy are at high risk for becoming what trainer Madeline Clark-Gabriel, of Dogs and Babies Learning, wrote about in her fantastic blog entry, "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Get Magnetized to Dogs." Tommy is not a "bad" kid, but he has, unfortunately, been "magnetized." His great fondness for Marcy has made him a young dog lover, (which is good), but has created the strong potential for danger when the magnetic attraction pulls him towards a dog who does not welcome his advances. Just because Marcy tolerates this well does not mean she enjoys it, and she would likely enjoy Tommy even more if he were taught more appropriate ways to play and interact with her.
One of a trainer's favorite behavior modification adjuncts is management (which I discussed last week in Dogster Magazine), but one of the problems with management is that it is bound to fail at some point because nobody is perfect.
So while you may say, "I would never allow Tommy to approach a strange dog," we must be cognizant of what the consequences are if management fails and your toddler, newly in love with running as fast as he possibly can, runs up to a reactive or aggressive dog. A far better and more reliable option is to combine management with teaching Tommy impulse control - that he doesn't necessarily get to greet every (or even most) dogs he sees, that he is taught more appropriate interactions with dogs. The parents also need instruction about how to read dog body language and facilitate positive, low-stress meetings when and if they are appropriate.
If your toddler or baby is already "magnetized," all hope is not lost. There is no time like the present to begin teaching your child better ways to interact with (and know when not to interact with) dogs. Madeline offered a follow-up blog called "Helping Toddlers Not Be Magnetized to Dogs," which can be read here, and offers some great management suggestions.
May is National Dog Bite Prevention month, but why wait until May? Start helping your child learn safer dog skills today, so that he won't become a bite statistic tomorrow. To learn more about how you can empower yourself as a parent to ensure your dog's safety, check out these great resources from Doggone Safe!